Integrating Saudi Women into the Workforce Brings Challenges

By Jeff Leeth Dec 9, 2014
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Successfully integrating women into the workforce in Saudi Arabia is a rewarding but risky activity due to considerable complexity and conflicting cultural requirements.

Saudi Arabia is an orthodox Islamic country with strong social and governmental institutions that reinforce Wahhabi cultural values. Saudi culture is a strict gender-segregated society that severely limits normal business interaction between the sexes.

In spite of these limitations, gradually incorporating Saudi females into the workforce has become an attractive and politically popular experiment, as large numbers of Saudi women are graduating from universities with expectations of employment. Still, Saudi females entering the workforce outside of traditional areas like nursing and teaching is a relatively new phenomenon. The general outlook for employing growing numbers of Saudi women is encouraging; however, there remain considerable managerial, legal and cultural challenges.

Management Challenges

Integrating women into a previously all-male work environment can be challenging for managers since it is functionally equivalent to managing at a distance. Gender-segregation rules limit face-to-face interaction, mandate separate offices and facilities, and limit direct oversight of work by male managers. Companies that do not plan well or that ignore cultural considerations risk the ever-present threat of inspections from the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government agency employing “religious police” to enforce Sharia law.

Absolute gender segregation in the workforce isn’t ordinarily possible for most businesses; however, every effort should be made to minimize potential cultural missteps. Some business meetings require mixed-gender team meetings, but women are expected to sit separate from men. This is related to a cultural requirement of social and physical protection. A frequent management worry is that Saudi males with customarily little experience interacting with nonfamilial females may exhibit inappropriate behavior.

Preparing the Workplace for Women

Procedurally, the establishment of a women’s section at facilities where women will work typically flows as follows:

  • Commitment is gained from senior management to employ Saudi women.
  • Facilities are modified to comply with architectural requirements, such as visibility-restricted windows; separate security access for women only; separate entrances, including elevators; and separate workspaces and rest, prayer and break areas.
  • Support services are contracted for the women’s section, such as female-only janitorial, refreshment services, security and attendance monitoring staff.
  • Standard business practices are established that comply with religious gender-segregation requirements. Managers must be trained on culturally safe protocol and procedures.
  • Candidates are recruited and onboarded. The interviewing experience can be disconcerting for Western managers since candidates often wear black veils concealing nonverbal communication clues. In addition, it isn’t unusually for female candidates to interview with a male relative present. Legally, employment of females requires approval from their male “guardian.” Also notable, there is no legal restriction against the usual forbidden interview questions related to family, marriage plans, child care or pregnancy.
  • HR policies are reviewed and revised. It is prudent to develop female-specific and protective policies such as an anti-harassment policy.

Cultural Limitations and Expectations

In practice, women usually work shorter daily and weekly hours than men. The standard workweek in Saudi Arabia is 48 working hours across 6 days. Fridays are designated a paid rest day. Overtime is calculated from a weekly base of 56 hours.

Since the employment of females outside of traditional fields is a relatively new concept, most candidates lack experience. Some Saudi women are so uncomfortable interacting in any way with males in the workplace that they will refuse jobs that require it.

The cultural expectation to marry shortly after university graduation and a lack of birth control for females frequently results in early-career employment breaks.

Labor Laws Specific to Women

Saudi Arabia heavily favors the protection of women at work compared to U.S. federal employment laws. Working women:

  • Are prohibited from working in hazardous occupations.
  • Are barred from working nights (with some exclusions).
  • Receive paid maternity leave.
  • Receive specifically mandated medical coverage during pregnancy and delivery.
  • Are protected from termination for 180 days during pregnancy and post-delivery.
  • Are paid one hour per day to accommodate breast-feeding (usually up to two years post-birth). In practice, this customarily means leaving work early. Employers with more than 50 female employees are required to provide baby sitters, and organizations with more than 100 female employees must provide a free day care center.

Jeff Leeth, SPHR, is senior general manager and HR business partner at Abdul Latif Jameel, an automotive distribution, financing, advertising and media company based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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